Friday, November 14, 2014

The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus

As a reader, I have always loved words - how they are created, what they mean.  I love that Frances and Gloria are beginning to learn those skills too - how words strung together can make magic happen in your heart and imagination.  Frances and I have been reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and she loves it.  She always sighs when we stop.  She tells me that it's "just getting interesting".  And Gloria listens intently, and when we come to a word she's curious about, she makes me stop reading until I've shown her the word and defined it.  Words can bring us together.  At work, my job has shifted away from librarianship and into IT.  But I'm still involved with the creation of a thesaurus for the agency.  Words never desert us.


That is never more evident than in The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus.  Peter Roget is a very young boy when his father dies.  After that, he and his family move around quite often, which leaves him lonely.  But what keeps him from feeling so lonely are his books.  "There were always plenty of them around, and he never had to leave them behind."  And eventually Roget begins to create lists of these words.  "Words, Peter learned, were powerful things.  And when he put them in long, neat rows, he felt as if the world itself clicked into order."  Eventually, Roget realized the power in having a list of exactly the right word for the right situation and decided to create one himself to help people with just that problem.

The first compilation of word lists Roget created contained more than 15,000 words!  He was also a doctor, tinkered with inventions, and tutored in a wide range of subjects when he was a young man.  But his passion was for that book of word lists.  So he kept improving it.  When it was finally published in 1852, people wanted it immediately.  It was ultimately a successful book, but Roget continued to strive to make that thesaurus better and better.

I have to admit that I am a huge Melissa Sweet fan.  One of the years I served on the Cybils Picture Book Nonfiction judging panel, we were lucky enough to consider two of her titles during our considerations - Balloons Over Broadway and Mrs. Harkness and the Panda.  I adore her whimsical collages and, the way she creates them so thoughtfully.  When I saw this book at the library, and realized that the text was written by Jen Bryant, I knew I had to read it.  Bryant has created some poetic, beautifully written biographies.  This title wowed me just as much as I suspected.  Whoever came up with the idea of having these two collaborate on this book was a genius!

From the very first page, Sweet has filled the collages with words and letters.  The title page spread features a structure built with wooden blocks.  Interspersed with the traditional blocks are blocks that feature letters in different sizes and fonts.  Letters are incorporated from the very beginning.  The title block is created on lined cards, with cataloging information next to the title, author and other information.  So right at the start, Sweet emphasizes the text and put importance on Roget's beloved words.  The very last pages, really the endpapers, are a recreation by Sweet of Roget's first thesaurus.  It is an amazing way to complete the journey, with a new appreciation of the work that went into creating the thesaurus.

Bryant also often allows Sweet's illustrations to take center stage.  Bryant describes Roget's baby sister Annette in this way: "Baby Annette slept in Mother's arms, a small pink blossom against a wall of black."  It is poetic, encompassing the fragility of a baby, and Annette's humanity in contrast to her grieving mother's black clothing.  The illustration is just as starkly poignant as the text, with Peter peering out of a coach window and a pink blossom cascading down the page against a background of velvety black. Across from that illustration is a graphic showing the family's travel from Bern, Switzerland to London, England after Peter's father died.

The back matter is just as fascinating and exquisite as the rest of the book Roget began by making a list of the main events in his life, entitled "List of Principal Events".  Bryant takes this list one step further and adds in world events to give Roget's life historical context.  There are also author and illustrator notes, where Bryant and Sweet describe how Roget's work inspired them.  Finally, there is a page that includes a selected bibliography, a list of titles for additional reference and the source of quotations in the text.  The back matter helps solidify this glorious book as a work of art and nonfiction.  I learned so much from this book about a man whose book I had often used but never marveled over.  Roget's thesaurus is a work of imagination as well as classification.

The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus .  Jen Bryant; Melissa Sweet.  Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014.

Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Friday, November 7, 2014

Atlantia and a GIVEAWAY!!!

This post includes a super exciting giveaway at the end, but don't just skip down to the end to enter.  All right, skip right down to the end to enter, but come right back to read what I have to say about Atlantia.


First of all, I had never read a book by Ally Condie before, although I had certainly heard of her, and I knew her books.  But they came out at a time that I was a little worn out with dystopian books, so I just hadn't gotten around to reading them yet.  Even though I hadn't read the Matched series, I still knew I should grab the chance when Penguin offered me an Advanced Reader's Copy of Atlantia.  I had been seeing advance publicity, and I was excited to read something so popular before it came out.

I was sucked into the world of Atlantia right away, and barely came up to breathe.  Rio and her twin sister Bay have been raised by their mother, Oceana, Below, in Atlantia.  Below is the privileged place to live - when it was created deep under the ocean, families Above sent one member down to survive.  The rest of the family remained Above, exposed to terrible pollution.  The people Above provide all the food; the people Below provide all the ore out of their underwater mines.

The balance has been kept between Above and Below.  One child in each family must stay Below; all those who choose the Above select a life of sacrifice.  They also have no contact with the Below.  As soon as they make their choice, they are whisked away, without even a chance to say goodbye to their family Below.  Rio has always dreamt of going Above.  For her, the life of sacrifice and lack of contact are a trade-off for the experiences of air and land.  And she has always known that her sister Bay will stay Below with their mother.

But not long before the ceremony where Bay and Rio will announce their choice, their mother dies.  In an odd turn of events, she died on her sister Maire's doorstep, and there is no real reason Oceana should have died.  Oceana had very little contact with her sister, Maire, so it is especially odd that she died there, as if she was going to tell Maire something.  Maire is a siren, and sirens are treated very carefully in Atlantia.  They are believed to be a miracle, but their voices are so commanding and seductive.  Like the sirens of mythology, people must beware of them.  The sirens must report to the Council as children, and are used for the Council's work.  Because of their seductive singing, the Minister must prove themselves strong enough to resist the sirens and their call.  Maire has always been stronger than the other sirens, and is more of a wild card.  There are fewer and fewer sirens in Atlantia.  And Rio holds a secret that only two other people know - that she is a siren too.

The twists start coming early on in this novel.  Within the first chapter, everything Rio has ever known or believed about her twin, Bay, is challenged and turned upside down.  While Rio is reeling from this stunning knowledge, the only family she has left is Maire.  Knowing that Maire is a powerful siren, and knowing that Oceana never told Maire about Rio's power, Rio is faced with another decision - can she trust Maire with her secret?

I couldn't stop reading this novel.  I read it on the Kindle app, and found it much easier to lose track of how much I've read when there aren't any page numbers.  Condie's writing was magical too.  It sets a tone from the first page.  You are with Rio as she discovers the true Atlantia.  She begins to see Atlantia with clear eyes, but they are also eyes clouded with the pain of losing her mother, confusion around her sister and Bay's secrets, and full of the struggle to be herself, even though she must hide her voice.

There is so much to talk about in this book.  I found Condie's world-building fascinating.  Below was created with so many details that are tiny in themselves, but add up to a complete world.  For instance, there are mines in the water surrounding Atlantia, to keep people from trying to escape from the Below.  Atlantia itself was built sort of in the shape of an octopus, with the temple in the middle, and tentacles cascading outwards.  I don't want to talk about anything that might be a spoiler, so I won't say more about Atlantia.  But one thing I thought was important was the humanity of everyone we encounter in Atlantia.  No one (not even the sirens) has fish gills to breathe, or a mermaid tail.  They breathe air pumped into Atlantia, and experience life in much the same way the rest of us do.  If Atlantia wasn't underwater, it might seem a little like an indoor mall.  The evil in this book comes from other humans, not from creatures of the deep.

And there are powerful themes woven throughout this book - family, especially (and obviously) the way sisters interact, truth, power, and control.  The themes are developed delicately, and you truly experience everything through Rio's eyes as she struggles with who she must become.  I really loved this book, and I encourage you all to read it.

If you'd like to read it for yourself, I have an amazing opportunity to win a copy signed by Ally Condie herself!  Penguin Teen has ever so graciously allowed me to give away a copy.  I can't wait to see who wins!  Use the Rafflecopter link here to enter and good luck!  The giveaway ends on November 14th, and I will notify the winner by email.
a Rafflecopter giveaway


Atlantia.  Ally Condie.  Penguin, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review



Saturday, October 25, 2014

We Gather Together

Most years here in Montana, autumn is short.  Usually by now, we've had snow multiple times.  The fall leaves have all blown away in storms where the wind whips through the streets.  This year, though, we've had a surprising season - yes, we've already had snow, but only twice. Our fall leaves are still in piles on the ground, and I was wearing flip flops until last week!  Now the Montana weather is very changeable, and all our Halloween costumes still have warm clothes underneath.  But we're enjoying the actual fall right now!

 
And that's why we've been loving  We Gather Together: Celebrating the Harvest Season this year too.  I requested the new paperback version of this 2006 title through my new relationship with Penguin Books for Young Readers, and it came at the perfect time.  The fall equinox was on September 23rd this year, and, a month later, we are waiting impatiently for daylight savings time to fall back.  It's dark until after 7am each morning, and only light in the evenings until about 7pm.  Frances and Gloria have a hard time getting up in the mornings (although it is easier to get them to go to sleep!).
 
So it's helpful to have a book like this to help us really investigate fall.  It's often blink-and-you-miss-it here, and the nearest corn maze is more than 90 minutes away.  We move from being sad about summer ending, with our farm and garden crops being put to bed, to being immersed in winter.  In this title, Pfeffer does an amazing job of helping kindergarten through 3rd graders learn all about the harvest season.
 
She begins by describing how animals use fall to prepare for the winter, including foxes burying rodent leftovers to eat later (gross!) and beavers storing twigs and sticks underwater for when their ponds are iced over.  Pfeffer explains  how humans don't need to store so much food anymore, because our grocery stores transport perishable items from the other side of the world when they are out of season here.  The text then discusses the fall equinox and defines it for readers (that the nights equal the days and then become longer than the days as we become closer to winter).  This also signals the time to harvest all over the world.
 
As the days begin to cool off, and the summer sun no longer shines, crops can't make the food they need.  Those crops must also be harvested before the first true freeze of the winter.  The text then considers peoples throughout history - cavemen, Ancient Egyptians, the Wampanoags - and how they harvested.  Pfeffer tells readers "Over the centuries, people celebrated plentiful harvests and passed down traditions, at different times in different places, and in different ways. All over the world, harvest celebrations from the past are still being carried on today."  The text goes on to talk about harvesting and harvest celebrations around the world, including in India, Japan, Jewish culture and others.
 
One of the things that I like the most about We Gather Together is how well Pfeffer handles the diversity of information that's contained within this book.  There's science, social studies and environmentalism all contained within its pages.  These could be overwhelming, particularly to a young reader.  But the text is general and fairly brief.  It gives interesting information and helps children imagine themselves in the many cultures and time periods.  While each page has five to seven lines of text, the vocabulary is fairly simple for children to digest and comprehend.
 
Another thing that makes the book easy to use is the large scale illustrations.  The colors are vibrant, yet autumnal in tone throughout most of the book.  They are mostly double page spreads, and the text blocks vary throughout the book.  It really allows readers to balance the longer text with looking at the detailed illustrations.  It gives them a sense of a variety of cultural styles and details.  Bleck's illustrations help give life to the traditions and harvests of many cultures.
 
Finally, I love the back matter in this title.  There is a huge amount of back matter for a picture book nonfiction title.  There are facts about the equinox, science experiments, a recipe, a list of harvest festivals, a bibliography and websites.  It is all well-done, and the science experiments include additional questions for reflection.  I think this makes this title incredibly useful in classrooms and at home.  It has already spurred some great conversations here.  It's helping us enjoy this season before it too quickly disappears.
 
We Gather Together: Celebrating the Harvest Season.  Wendy Pfeffer; illustrated by Linda Bleck.  Puffin Books, 2006.
 
sent by the publisher.
 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Theseus and the Minotaur

"Adventure, mythology, and a Minotaur!
What's not to like?"
 - Frank Cammuso
(from back cover)
I'm not sure I've ever written about Greek or Roman mythology on my blog.  While I've read books of both kinds, I think mythology didn't really come to life for me until I read the Percy Jackson series, much like many readers today.  I've always loved the clever way that Rick Riordan weaves multiple strands of the myths together.  But this first book in the TOON Graphics for Visual Readers series, Theseus and the Minotaur, brings a reality to the myths, brings them to life.

The story opens with a man retelling this myth to two young people on a boat.  He reminds them (and the reader) "This is an ancient one, a heroic tale that has been told thousands of times, transformed by generations of narrators with fertile imaginations." (p. 9)  It is a terrific opening, particularly because this story has many layers of gods and men and wars.  So many layers that I am not sure I can even sum it all up successfully in a way that makes sense.  But I'll try!

Pommaux weaves two strands of the myth together to create one storyline.  First there is the story of Theseus' mother, Aethra.  On the same day, she was in a "watery embrace" with Poseidon, and met and married King Aegeus in secret.  Later, when she delivered her baby boy, Theseus, she believed he had two fathers - a god and a king.  In the meantime, King Aegeus had returned to his country (where he was married to another woman, Medea) and his worries about his country's impending struggle with the island of Crete.  Crete's ruler, Minos had some son issues of his own.  His son, Asterion, was born of his wife's love for a beautiful white bull, and was "monstrous" (p. 15) - half-man, half-bull.  Asterion is better known as the Minotaur.  In order to keep Crete safe from the Minotaur, Minos built a labyrinth.  He ordered Aegeus to bring him tributes on a regular basis.  Those tributes would go into the labyrinth and never return.

Whew! Dizzy yet?  I have to admit, I read this story a few times through before I was able to distill it into its core facts.  And this isn't because Pommaux adds in unnecessary details or spends too much time creating a family tree.  On the contrary, Pommaux uses descriptive language, but in a simple style of writing.  For instance, "Crazed with grief, Minos threatened to wage war against Aegeus unless, every nine years, he sent seven Athenian young men and seven Athenian young women to the Labyrinth." (p. 19)  I love how Pommaux describes Minos as crazed with grief.  I think that is a term that readers may not come across often, but it gives a strong explanation to Minos' actions.  But I digress...

The reason it is so difficult to simplify this text into a couple of paragraphs of summary is because the mythology is complicated.  There are reasons why the humans in this story act the ways they do - love, pride, anger, fear, bravery.  There are reasons, too, why the gods act the way they do - jealousy, temptation, boredom.  All of those individual emotions and actions wreak havoc with the lives down below.  Minos is responsible for appeasing the gods, and asks for a sign from Poseidon.  Poseidon sends a glorious bull, but demands it be sacrificed to him.  Minos ignores Poseidon because he thinks the bull is so beautiful.  So Poseidon gets angry and makes Minos' wife fall in love with the bull.  And we all know how that ends...with the Minotaur.

There are certain themes that Pommaux brings up in the text over and over again.  One of those is the contradiction between free will and fate.  It is Minos' free will that keeps him from doing what Poseidon requires and sacrificing the bull.  Is it his wife's fate to be in love with a bull, or to be the mother of the Minotaur?  Or is it not fate, because Poseidon created this situation as a punishment for Minos?  Minos is a particularly fascinating character to me.  He is proud, brash, a little bit ugly (both physically and in character), yet he never seems to learn from either his punishments or his mistakes.  He sends his beloved son, Androgeous, to Athens, to boast of his strength and might.  Minos loves his son very much, but it is more important to Minos to show him off.  And of course, Minos risks Androgeos' life by doing so.  I feel a little bit of pity for Minos and his bull-headedness.

There are many, many things to discuss in this story - brains v. brawn, the father-son relationships that we see depicted, the idea of the labyrinth... And these multiple themes point out that this is a leap for TOON Books.  Their previous titles have been mostly aimed at beginning readers (with the exception of The Secret of the Stone Frog).  This book marks the start of a new series of titles.  These TOON Graphics for Visual Readers are exciting in their own right.  The books are larger in size (8 1/2 x 11), but the covers have the same smooth, high quality feel.  If you couldn't tell from the summary of the myth, the subject matter is also suited to a slightly older reader.  The fact that the myth is so complex, and rich with thematic matter, means there is lots to discuss with older readers.  To aid in discussion, there is a list of possible questions on the inside back cover.

In this title in the series, I am also really pleased with the shift towards nonfiction.  Not many publishers pay attention to all of the little details that make a book useful in the classroom.  And there are many details that are used effectively here.  There is a map of the action on the front inside cover, pronunciation of the Greek names throughout the text, further reading and an illustrated index.  And if all of that wasn't enough, there is my favorite part - trading card sized text boxes that remind readers of all of the main characters in this story.  The "trading cards" include facts about the characters' families, birth places, siblings, and the meaning of their names.  There is so much supplemental information included here.

I can't wait to explore other titles in this series and I will share them with you in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in more information about the series, there was a great article about TOON Books in the New York Times a few weeks ago, located here.  For now, Theseus and the Minotaur is a great place to start.

Theseus and the Minotaur.  Yvan Pommaux.  TOON Books, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Owls See Clearly At Night and Wild Berries

I have a funny relationship in my mind with other children's literature bloggers (I know they have no idea about it!) and children's literature reviews on the Internet in general.  I love reading and supporting other bloggers.  But if I am already considering reviewing a title on my own blog, I try to avoid any other reviews of that title until I'm done.  I think most reviewers probably do something similar.  I want to record my own thoughts about it, not inadvertently let someone else's thoughts affect my own.  So I mostly use brief summaries or mentions on other blogs to spur my interest in new titles, but don't read longer reviews until I'm done.  With so many titles coming out each year, bloggers have to call each other's attention to the best ones.  But then we each have our own spin on what we love about that  title - what works for us and what doesn't.  I found Julie Flett's titles, Owls See Clearly at Night and Wild Berries, mentioned on a listserv that I follow for Montana librarians.  I am so glad I did.



The first book I requested through ILL was Owls See Clearly at Night.  It is a Michif alphabet book.  In the introduction to this book, Flett explains that "languages are precious; they capture the very essence of a culture."  The Michif language is a mixture of Cree, French and some Ojibwe as well.  It is distinct, and yet Métis are transitioning to become solely English-speaking and losing the Michif language.  They are losing this link to their heritage.  This language is spoken in Montana, which is why it was especially of interest to me.  One of the unique hallmarks of Michif is that one word can often express something that takes a whole sentence in English.

So this alphabet book is just as unique as the culture it depicts.  Some of the Michif words Flett has selected include commands ("Tell a story") and descriptions ("Red Willow") as well as the more standard vocabulary words ("jig", "canoe").  On each page, the letter featured is in a large font.  Then the word is written in Michif, in the same colored font as the large letter, like "La Niizh".  Then finally below this is the word written in English, "snow".

This book is gorgeous for many reasons.  One of them is the way the book is laid out.  The letter/Michif/English text is isolated on one side of the page, floating in white space.  The letter and Michif words are in a muted red or green-blue, colors that echo those in the illustrations.  The white space around the text give the words weight, but they also seem ethereal there on the page - a marvelous juxtaposition.

And then there are the illustrations.  Unfortunately, there isn't a description of Flett's illustrative process, so I can only make an educated guess.  It looks like collages of painted papers.  All of the illustrations, taken together, are a celebration of nature and the people around us.  One of my favorite illustrations is J for "La jig/jig".  On a background of snowy gray-white are darker gray stars.  Two girls stand, arm in arm, clearly dancing.  They wear matching dresses and tan moccasins.  Their hair blows lightly, and their faces are serious, concentrating.  It is a gorgeous page, and you feel included in the moment between sisters.

This book is extremely functional as well as being gorgeous.  Besides the introduction explaining the importance of keeping the Michif language alive, there are also vowel and consonant pronunciation guides at the back of the book.  There are also Michif language resources as well as several books.  I think you know by now that I love the sort of "picture books" that can be expanded to be used by many students or even adults.  This one is no exception.

Wild Berries was published last year, and just like Flett's first book, as soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to write about it.  This differs from Flett's previous book in several ways.  Firstly, the language emphasized in this text is Cree, not Michif.  The jacket flap tells us that Flett is Cree-Métis, so this possibly comes from another branch of her family than Owls See Clearly at Night.  Wild Berries also is an actual story, instead of teaching concepts through the Michif language.

It is the story of Clarence, who goes with his grandmother to pick wild berries.  As Clarence grows older, he participates, singing as they walk through the forest.  Grandma keeps an eye out for bears; Clarence eats the blueberries that he picks.  They like very different kinds of blueberries - Grandma loves the juicy, almost overripe ones.  Clarence picks the blueberries that are tart and almost underripe.  What matters in this story isn't their differences.  What matters is their shared experience, and the gratitude they also share.  As they leave the clearing, Clarence sets out blueberries for the animals and birds, to say thank you to them for sharing their berries.

While there are some things that are very different between Flett's two books, there are some things that unite the two beautifully.  One of these is a feeling of simplicity and serenity.  The tone of both books is calm, simple, but the language is chosen carefully for full impact.  For example, "Clarence likes big blueberries, sour blueberries, blueberries that go POP in his mouth."  The words give you a tangible feeling along your teeth as you read (don't they?).  We can sense exactly how those blueberries POP.  The words are strung together like poetry, where every word counts.

There is also the theme of family.  Much like the dancing sisters in Owls See Clearly at Night, there is a closeness between Clarence and his Grandma that doesn't require conversation.  They are content to pick together, not talking.  It is truly a moment to celebrate the nature around them.  This is a ritual to both of them, with the song as they approach the clearing and the thank you as they leave.  And just because it is a familiar ritual doesn't mean the time together isn't still appreciated.  It is a sweet time, and not just because the blueberries.

Finally, the illustrations are similar, yet not the same.  She uses many of the same earthy colors here that she did in Owls, and the same stark backgrounds.  There are very simple shapes and lines here.  But what I love most is the pop of a tomato red in each picture.  Grandma's skirt is red, and at some points a fox or birds appear and highlight the rich colors.  It brings almost an autumnal feel to this title, but it has the same ethereal feeling as Owls See Clearly at Night.

There is a pronunciation guide at the back of Wild Berries too, which helps explain to readers the dialect in which this book was created.  There is also a recipe for wild blueberry jam, which is mouth-watering.  Both of these books are gorgeously created books, but they also have a gorgeous meaning as well.  I highly recommend them, and can't wait for her next book.

Owls See Clearly at Night.  Julie Flett.  Simply Read Books, 2010.
Wild Berries.  Julie Flett.  Simply Read Books, 2013.

both titles borrowed via ILL

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rookie Toddler Series

Sadly, Frances and Gloria are too old for board books now.  We still have a few of our favorites on our shelves - I mention Dinosaur's Binkit in my post, but we also love Baby Cakes and the Sandra Boynton series about Pookie.  They are read pretty infrequently, but I still catch Gloria reading them every once in a while.  I miss having board books in our house.  That was a pretty special time for us.  So it made me happy this spring to see the Rookie Toddler series featured on a School Library Journal webcast.  Side note:  I love those webcasts, and this isn't the first time I've learned about new books from a webcast that I've reviewed here.  In this case, I am excited to say that my request for some books to review has led to a relationship with Scholastic Library Publishing, and I'll be featuring many more of their titles in the future.

But back to the Rookie Toddler series.  I requested this series because I was interested in seeing how nonfiction could be created successfully for the youngest readers.  How could they be simple enough for toddlers to understand, hold up to repeated readings, and also impart information to young children?  The good news is that they do all of those successfully. I was also pleasantly surprised to realize that while they are board books, they can expand to be used with children up through preschool.  As you'll see in the next few paragraphs, some of the concepts that are covered are a little more sophisticated (like It's Time For...), but that doesn't mean that the subjects won't be meaningful to younger children.

The books are very durable.  They are, of course, board books.  They have die-cut scalloped edges along the right-hand side.  This makes it easy for chubby hands to grasp and hold on.  The glossy clovers are smooth, so pieces won't bend off, like has happened with many of our other well-loved books.  All of the books are illustrated with photographs.  The photos are primarily on white backgrounds, which help the photographs stand out even more.  The choice of a plain, stark background makes it easier for young eyes (even babies) to focus on the photos.  This series is very well designed!



The first individual title that I'd like to talk about is Shapes That Go.  On each double-paged spread, the left hand page shows a shape.  The shapes are vibrantly colored, which pop against the stark white background.  The shape is identified under the picture.  On the right, the shape is highlighted on a vehicle.  For example, the triangle is highlighted on a picture of a bicycle, along with the text "See the triangle."  The color is consistent to help toddlers track what is going on in the spread.  The triangle on the left (and the word underneath) are yellow, and so is the sentence on the right (and the highlighting around the triangle on the bike).  My only minor disappointment with this title is that it doesn't identify the vehicles.  But in a fourteen page book, it is teaching children the concepts of colors, shapes and vehicles in a simple, easy to follow format.  It's very impressive!

The next title is Counting 1 to 20.  This one divides the double-paged spread into four columns, using a line of little pawprints.  They are all a cheery blue color, and again, it helps train the reader's eye to move down the column.  Each column shows a certain number of the same animal; for instance, "6 six pandas".  Toddlers see the number and see it spelled out.  Again, color is used repetitively (and effectively) to match the text and send the subtle message that the number and words are related.  There is plenty of white space surrounding the animals being counted, which means that children can put their finger on each animal as they count.  While I love this one for its cuteness factor (and Gloria is still enjoying counting with it), it might be a bit too picky to mention that some of the animals are clearly baby animals, and perhaps should have been described with that name (foals, kids, kittens, etc.).  However, not all of the animals were noticeably babies, so maybe that was a conscious decision.


One of the most ambitious titles is It is Time for... .  This is the book that I mentioned earlier would work with preschool-aged children too.  There is a label to identify the general time of the day - morning, noon, evening.  There is a sentence describing the activity the child is performing in the photograph.  There are also both a digital and an analog clock to help children connect to the specific time of day.  This book is unusual in that the photographs fill the whole page.  But the photographs are sharp, and it is easy to identify the activity.  The photographs focus on the child, but also show many different families and parents.  It adds a feeling of warmth and caring to the book.

The Seasons mixes some of the hallmarks of this series in a new dynamic way.  From the cover on, each season is associated with a color.  So winter, for example, is matched with the color blue.  On the spread that talks about winter, the word 'winter' is in bold blue print.  There are three short sentences that describe the weather conditions for that season.  There are also four pictures framed in that same blue color to tie everything together.  Children are performing a variety of tasks and activities that can be done in that season too.  In spring, children are walking in the rain, gardening, playing baseball, and flying a kite.  I like how in all of these photos children are outside and active, even in the snowy winter.  And the photos include a diverse group of children and adults, making it feel fairly inclusive.

Can You Say Please? is another book that could be used at any time up to kindergarten.  The concept here is manners (obviously).  Each double-paged spread includes one full-page photograph.  On the other page is a sentence describing what the child would say in that situation.  "When I want a turn to speak, I say 'excuse me'".  The important words are in a different color, so they are emphasized.  The other thing I appreciate about this title (although this applies to the other titles too) is that the photos are very carefully chosen.  Even a very young child can grasp why that child needs to use that word at that time.  Again, there is a multiculturally diverse group of children included in these pictures.

Finally, Red Pepper Yellow Squash is probably my favorite in the series.  It combines the concept of colors along with a variety of vegetables.  In this book, the background of each page matches the color of the vegetables and the word in the text.  The brown page features potatoes, with the sentence "The potatoes are brown."  The background, actual potatoes, and text are all a subtly different brown, but close enough that they "read" as the same color.  I think that is very effective.  Plus, the vegetables look shiny and yummy without looking too perfect.  I love that the book includes eggplant and cauliflower along with those kid favorites, peas and carrots.  Again, Gloria loved identifying the various vegetables that we eat on a regular basis.

One other thing that I love about these books is that the last spread in each book is that the last spread reviews the concept again, along with a storytime tip.  In It is Time For...that last page shows a lineup of thumbnail shots of the day's activities, along with a digital and analog clock for each time.  The storytime tip recommends that the reader could go back through and talk about what that particular child's family does at each time.  This helps give some suggestions for book use and how to extend its use beyond its own pages.  I love this series and am grateful to Scholastic for allowing me to review it!  Look for more Scholastic books to come.

Can You Say Please?  Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
Counting 1 to 20. Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
It is Time for... Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
Red Pepper Yellow Squash: A Book of Colors.  Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
The Seasons. Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
Shapes That Go. Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.

All books sent by the publisher in exchange for a honest review.


Friday, September 12, 2014

The Haunted Library

Haunted libraries sound very cool, don't they?  When I was asked to be part of a blog tour for this series, I was very excited about it.  I worked in several libraries in my career, and I was often in those libraries after closing.  It was always a little creepy, but in a sort of exciting way.  I wondered whether I might catch a glimpse of a ghost.  Sadly, I never did.  But with the Haunted Library series by Dori Hillestad Butler, readers can explore a haunted library in a safe, fun way.  Frances and Gloria haven't been able to keep their hands off this easy chapter book series since they arrived!

Interestingly enough, this series doesn't actually begin in a library.  Kaz, the nine year old ghost who is the focus of this series, is haunting a school with his family.  There are a few problems, though.  Kaz doesn't like to do some of the things that most ghosts do automatically.  He hates trying to pass through walls (it made him feel skizzy, or sick, the only time he tried), he can't glow or wail (which is the way ghosts allow people to see or hear them).  And he is desperately afraid of the Outside, where you can't control where the wind takes you.  His brother and grandparents had been sucked into the Outside and were now lost to them.

So without basic ghost skills, Kaz is really in trouble when the schoolhouse is demolished and the wind sucks him Outside.  Even worse, he is sucked in a different direction than the rest of his family.  He's left alone.  But then he blows into the window of a house, and it turns out to be the library of the title.  Kaz soon meets up with Claire, a young girl who lives upstairs from the library (how cool is that?).  Her grandma Karen is the librarian, and her parents run a detective agency.  And to Kaz's surprise, the library is already haunted.  An even bigger surprise - Claire can see Kaz!

I want to not do too much summarizing of the plots of the stories, although I'll have to describe some points as I review.  I read both The Haunted Library, which begins the series, and The Ghost in the Attic, which is Book Two.  Book Three (The Ghost Backstage) will be available in November.  These books are each about 125 pages, with lots of illustrations throughout.  They are perfect easy chapter books for 2nd through 4th graders.  They look interesting and accessible and will be great additions to any collections.

Part of what I like about these books so much is Kaz himself.  Yes, he's a ghost, but first and foremost, he is a young boy.  There is no mention of what happened to cause Kaz and his family to become ghosts - they are really like any other family.  There are just a few other restrictions.  And once Kaz is separated from his family, you see that he longs for them, just like any other 9 year old would.  And I think that is very comforting in an odd way.  Even though he's a ghost, Kaz actually behaves like many children would in the same situation.  There is nothing scary about Kaz at all, and he is very relatable.  So it's a fun way for young readers to explore ghosts without being scared.

Another thing I like about this series so far is that the "hauntings" are very explainable, which I think makes them more understandable to young readers.  My interactions with elementary school readers is that it is primarily older grade students who enjoy reading something that is scary and has no explanation.  New readers want there to be an explanation that makes sense in the end.  And both of these hauntings are explained in enough detail to satisfy them.

Kaz and Claire decide to form their own ghost detective agency, because Claire's parents won't let her participate in theirs.  Claire can see Kaz, but no other human (Kaz calls them solids) can.  So Kaz can go along with Claire on cases.  But the two immediately run into a problem - we've already seen that Kaz doesn't like to go Outside.  So Kaz and Claire problem solve - Claire ends up carrying Kaz around in a plastic water bottle.  It's a perfect situation which allows Kaz to explore his surroundings without risking being blown away.  Kaz is particularly taken with cell phones!  I love how Claire and Kaz work together as a team - it's a great friendship.

The illustrations are perfect for this series.  They are slightly cartoonish without being silly.  Claire, Kaz, and all the other characters look animated and full of personality.  The illustrations vary in size, too, which keeps readers moving through the text at a rapid pace.  It keeps chapters or even blocks of text from feeling too long or cumbersome for a reader who is just tackling their first real chapter books.

There is much more I could say about these books, but I will save it for my next review.  I am definitely going to request Book #3 for review.  I'll also report back on what Frances and Gloria think about these books.


Thanks again to Dori Hillestad Butler for appearing.  For other stops on the Haunted Library Blog Tour please check http://www.kidswriter.com/blog/.

The Haunted Library.  Dori Hillestad Butler.  Grosset & Dunlap, 2014.
The Haunted Library: The Ghost in the Attic.  Dori Hillestad Butler.  Grosset & Dunlap, 2014.